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Intensive early stocking helps season-long pastures

By Larry Dreiling

Developing a good cow-calf herd is a lot like a single person finding someone who will stick by you through thick and thin toward the ideals of getting married and staying married.

Trends may come and go, but there's always that special someone that keeps you going. In the same way, having good cows producing good calves is a never-changing ideal in the cattle industry.

However, there are those years we've seen lately where low moisture and just plain drought have caused some producers to liquidate their historic herds because their ranges lack the grass to support them.

Cattle management experts have recently encouraged producers to be more flexible in these times of climate uncertainty. That means perhaps reducing cow-calf herd size to more manageable levels and supplementing their operations by adding stocker cattle.

Stockers, it's thought, can be bought and sold at any time to stock or destock rangelands--depending on the range condition--without liquidating a main breeding herd.

Stocking changes

Dr. Keith Harmoney, assistant professor of range science at the Kansas State University Agricultural Research Center-Hays, has spent the last seven years--years on the center's rangeland mostly defined by drought--in research on what he calls intensive early stocking (IES).

IES is a practice that stocks young stockers at greater densities for the first half of the growing season and then removes a heavier portion of the animals for the last half of the growing season, effectively utilizing early season vegetation at its highest level of nutrition. Dr. John Jaeger, assistant professor of cow-calf management and beef systems at KSU-ARCH, assisted Harmoney in his research.

"I had seen research in eastern Kansas that showed how such a system dramatically increased production per animal per acre," Harmoney said. "The study here in Hays showed good results. We didn't get the same boost in production per acre but the results were very good.

"A modified version of this test was tried here four years, many years ago, where they tried to get the benefits of season-long stocking where animals were able to pick out the most nutritious plant parts. We found that gains were suppressed in such a season-long system three out of the four years."

The hypothesis

The earlier test saw early season animal gains 15 percent lower than for season-long stocking in two out of four years, and full season individual animal gains were 25 percent lower for the two times IES system (2X IES) in three of the four years.

Harmoney came into the study hypothesizing that, by reducing the density of animals early in the season to less than the 2X IES density and then removing the heaviest animals at mid-season, maximum early season gain per animal could be retained and gain per acre could be increased.

"On shortgrass rangeland in western Kansas, individual animal gain during the early growing season and beef production on a land area basis is similar between animals stocked at 2X IES, or twice the season-long stocking density, and animals stocked at a normal density for eastern Kansas," Harmoney said.

Weighing cattle

Pastures at KSU-ARCH are defined as mostly loamy upland range sites with small inclusions of limey upland and loamy lowland range. Dominant grasses include blue grama, buffalograss, side-oats grama, western wheatgrass, and Japanese brome, while the key forb species is western ragweed.

What Harmoney did differently compared to previous tests on this challenging range was reduce the number of stockers from twice the normal stocking density to 1.6 times normal stocking density.

Harmoney also decided to weigh the stockers at mid-season and remove the heaviest stockers from the range. Typically, this was done in mid-July, about 75 to 80 days after the start of the grazing season.

Perhaps this appears to be more labor intensive but, as Harmoney explains, "By weighing the cattle rather than just eyeballing them, you are going to get a much more uniform set of cattle going into the feedlot.

"They'll likely finish out closer to each other, rather than have a 100- to 300-pound difference coming into the feedlot if you just eyeballed them. When we weighed them, the top end had only a 100-pound difference."

Buy by the potload

In order to assist the local economy, Harmoney and Jaeger traveled to several area sale barns purchasing 104 head of Angus and Angus-Hereford crossbred steers.

"We decided to make do just like any other area cattleman," Harmoney said. "We went around to various places (no more than about 50 miles from the pastures) buying small pens of steers here and there. There can be tremendous variation when you buy cattle like this, where all you see is the average weight of the potload."

On arrival, the cattle were withheld from feed and water for six to 12 hours. They were then weighed. The animals were also given any needed treatments and implanted, then stocked onto the pastures.

One set of 40 animals were stocked at a recommended moderate stocking rate for the study pastures for the early May through early October season-long system. The 64 IES animals at 1.6 times the stocking density of season-long animals from May through mid-July, and then stocked at a one times (1X) rate the remainder of the grazing season.

In mid-July, animals were again held without feed or water and were weighed. The heaviest animals from each IES pasture were removed and placed in the feedlot to achieve a 1X stocking density the remainder of the season. All other animals were returned to pasture. Animals on pasture were then also fed a 0.2-pound crude protein per steer per day supplement.

In early October, animals were again withheld from feed or water for six to 12 hours and weighed. Animals were then placed directly into a feedlot. Stocking comparisons were made from 2002 to 2008. It was from these actions that Harmoney and Jaeger came up with the following results.

Gains per acre

Average daily gains through the first half of the season on the season-long stocked cattle were 1.71 pounds per day with a total average gain of 128 pounds per animal. The IES cattle gained 1.54 pounds per day with a total average gain of 115 pounds. No differences were found between average daily gains (1.35 vs. 1.37 pounds per day) and total gains per animal (106 vs. 107 pounds) for the season-long and IES cattle during the last half of the season.

Animals from the more densely stocked IES system had slightly lower gains halfway through the season, and had similar daily gain and total gain as animals from season-long system during the last half of the season. Total individual animal gain (234 vs. 222 pounds) and average daily gain (1.53 vs. 1.45 pounds per day) was not different between the season long and the IES systems for animals on pasture the entire grazing season.

However, each year, total gain on a land area basis was greater for the IES system at 86 pounds per acre for IES vs. 69 pounds per acre for season-long grazing.

After initial costs of purchase and interest on grazing animals, return per acre was greater three of seven years for the IES cattle and equal the remaining four years, and averaged $11.74 per acre greater across all years, Harmoney found.

Better forage later

With the result in hand, Harmoney then looked at historic data to show how IES could have worked over time. He found that IES returned an average of $6.05 more per acre than season-long stocking during a 25-year span from 1977 to 2001.

"Both systems had one year of negative returns, but the intensive early season stocking system had 22 of 25 years with a greater return than season-long stocking," Harmoney said. "We looked at returns per acre and they ranged from -$3.65 to $58.82 for season-long and -$9.19 to $76.74 for the intensive system during those 25 years."

IES obviously requires some patience for stocker gains, as IES animals had lower gains during the early season compared with cattle placed in the season-long grazing system.

Overall, lowering the density early in the season via IES allowed enough quantity and quality of forage late in the season for animals to maintain expected individual performance. Total gain per acre increased because of the greater early stocking density. Net returns per acre were greater for IES than for conventional season-long stocking three out of seven years.

"The years in which intensive early season grazing didn't return more dollars than the season-long system were a matter of start and mid-season market price relationships rather than animal performance," Harmoney points out.

The bottom line

Besides making money, the question to be truly asked is: "Has the condition of the range changed by using IES?"

"In the analysis, western wheatgrass, blue grama, and sideoats grama composition changes have not differed between the two strategies," Harmoney said. "We saw a reduction in western wheatgrass composition and other botanical shifts in that previous trial with annual use of the 2X system."

In addition, Harmoney's data showed end of season standing dry matter remained similar and annual changes in end of season biomass have paralleled each other, due to yearly differences in precipitation.

Harmoney's original hypothesis that less desirable vegetation would eventually increase from annual use of IES because of the greater total season stocking rate has not happened yet, but he thinks it still may do so with many more consecutive years of implementing the system on the same pasture.

While Harmoney's experience with IES showed potential for an increase in cattle returns per acre, it also showed little evidence so far that the system is altering vegetation at KSU-ARCH.

Presenting results

Harmoney has prepared a paper for presentation at the annual KSU-ARCH Roundup, April 16, which brings scores of area cattle producers to the center for a day of education. In the paper, Harmoney writes, "(IES) may be useful as a stocking strategy to implement during short term consecutive seasons, or in a rotation of years with other systems stocked at a moderate rate, but has yet to be analyzed in western Kansas when used in a sequential rotation manner."

While returns per acre using IES are mostly profitable, Harmoney still urges producers to use care in possibly adopting such a system on their own ranges.

"Since several years of rangeland condition and vegetative composition data are required to assess long-term sustainability, it is not known how long rangelands can support annual use of this practice without any adverse effects. After seven years, adverse vegetation effects are not yet evident," Harmoney said.

Dr. Keith Harmoney may be contacted at 785-625-3425 ext. 221 or at kharmone@ksu.edu.

Larry Dreiling can be reached by phone at 785-628-1117 or by e-mail at ldreiling@aol.com.

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